Need For Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed has some tough competition. Since the first Shift came out a year and a half ago, both Forza 3 and Gran Turismo 5 have been released. Likewise, PR for Shift 2 hyped it up as “the most realistic racing game ever” among other things. Considering the heritage of the Need For Speed series, that’s a pretty tough statement. I mean, let’s be serious – the NFS series was the ’96 Civic with Kanji stickers compared to the Gallardo or Veyron of Forza 3 or GT5.
Still, Shift 2 has thrown itself out on the grid. Can it keep pace here or does it end up in a tire wall somewhere around turn two? Hit the jump to find out.
Before we begin the review in earnest, I feel the need to point out that I’m playing Shift 2 Unleashed on the PC. I’m doing this for two reasons. One, because I feel the PC offers the most control options, and two, because most reviews of the first game focused on the consoles.
Jumping right into Shift 2, things start out much like they did in the first game. You begin your racing experience as a rookie behind the wheel of his first true track machine. In order to gauge your abilities, the game throws you behind the wheel of a GT-R, basically telling you to go have fun. After getting a few hot laps in, the game suggests a difficulty setting that it thinks fits your abilities. The settings, of course, cover all of the basics. If you are a novice, you can have braking assists, traction control, a racing line and a handful of other handicaps that will make your life a lot easier. If that isn’t your thing, you are completely free to turn everything off and act like you are the Stig.
After the intro race, you are dumped into the full-blown career mode. This mode works just like every other racing career mode out there. You race, you gain levels and you unlock more events, cars and options for your car. The cool part about this, though, is that unlike Shift 2’s more mature sibling, Forza, you don’t just gain experience for winning races. You can gain bonus experience by doing all kinds of things outside of just winning, such as hitting a corner’s apex just right or driving a clean line. These XP gains also happen in real time. As you race, a bar will fill above your main view that lets you constantly keep tabs on how close you are to that next unlock. It’s sort of similar to the Kudos system in Project Gotham Racing, which was excellent.
Another encouragement is the Autolog system, which tracks your lap times and compares them to other people in the world. Not only is it possible to see the best times for your region, it’s also possible to see how your friends are doing. It’s a nice addition to the Shift series, especially for the more competitive racer.
Both the points system and the addition of Autolog encourage you to drive like a proper racing driver instead of, say, Bowser in Mario Kart.
Unfortunately, the AI doesn’t care about either of these things. The AI will race a pristine line when no other cars are around, but add even one competitor into the mix and they get quite confused. At times the AI will race like you’re not even on the track. Brake early? Enjoy a front splitter wedged up your ass. Take an aggressive line? Sideswiped. Not at the absolute inside of a hairpin? Enjoy the computer flying off your quarter panel (which must be revenge for all the times I’ve done that to the AI in Forza 3).
To make matters worse, Vaugh Gitten Jr. – the game’s pseudo announcer/spokesperson – will give you “advice” or “encouragement” during races. This is supposed to make you feel like you have a real racing driver as your spotter, but in reality it just feels like John Madden is hovering over your shoulder letting you know that you have to hit the break to slow your car. Oh, you don’t say! Perhaps you could give that advice to the M5 that just did seven summersaults off into the forest?
The worst part of the Madden-esque encouragement? He will tell you to drive cleanly as cars are grinding against your bumper. It’s sort of funny, but after the 400th time, it will start to get on your nerves.
Vaughn also acts as your guide through the drifting portion of the game, which will either be a chore or a challenge depending on your enjoyment of the sport. Vaughn’s advice here is much more useful, although it can occasionally slide back to Madden hilarity.
Fortunately, ignoring the AI (and Vaughn), driving itself is pretty decent. Shift 2 is certainly going for a simulation feel, and it does a good job of that for the most part. On the PC, though, the game does exhibit a few physics problems. All of the cars in the game seem to have a serious amount of oversteer that isn’t correctable via normal means. Given the game’s unique first-person camera system (more on that later), this can be incredibly annoying until you get used to it.
To make matters worse, the game has no native mouse steering support, which is seriously something developers need to include in PC racing games. This means that if you don’t have a 360 controller or a wheel, you are going to have to steer a race car with your arrow keys. Imagine trying to steer a car going 130 mph with a light switch and you’ve basically got the gist of how this feels. For the sake of honesty, I tried using the keyboard at first to see how it felt – I lasted about seven minutes. Buy a good wheel, kids.
The graphics here aren’t groundbreaking, but they aren’t bad either. It feels a lot like Forza 2 where the cars were modeled beautifully, but the environments were lacking. With that said, I can’t help but notice that some polish is missing here. Sitting in the cockpit of the 370Z, the clock is eternally set to zero o’clock. Likewise, the boost gauges in some of the cars seem to be disconnected, while in others they worked just fine (kudos to actually including one in the UI, though). These are small details, however, and for the most part they did an excellent job on all of the cars.
Slightly Mad Studios spent quite a bit of time perfecting the immersive feel of the cockpit in Shift 2, and it shows. One of the neatest features is the way ‘your’ head moves as you take a corner. The driver’s eyes follow the apex instead of blankly staring forward or just barely inching over to the side. The result takes a bit of getting used to, but after playing for a few hours, you feel completely pulled into the experience. A bobbing head and copious amounts of motion blur are also added into the mix, giving you a sensation of speed that feels appropriate, not overdone. Likewise, the night races are fantastic. When you add in all of the immersion effects at night, you can’t help but tunnel vision your screen.
The immersion is lacking in one area, however – sound. Shift 2 certainly understands the concept of loud, but it has absolutely no clue about subtlety. While some cars sounded great, many sounded muddy and distorted. Even hyper cars like the LFA or the the Huayarharahrahrarawriaaaya sound like they were recorded next to a chainsaw. Likewise, multiple sounds seem to get drowned out or mixed together in unrealistic ways. At times, it sounded as if the multiple channels were being crossed – engine sounds would occasionally cut in and out, buffering over each other, for example.
Indeed – this wasn’t the only bug in the game. Changing tire compounds would crash me with a 50% success rate. I also crashed to desktop a couple of times for mysterious reasons. Crashing in the middle of a race after just perfecting a few corners is incredibly frustrating.
Racing games (especially sims) require tons of patience by design, and that’s perfectly okay. However, that patience shouldn’t have to extend to praying that the game itself doesn’t crash before you finish a race.
Shift 2 Unleashed isn’t a bad game. By itself, it’s actually a pretty good racer. Unfortunately, the game shows a distinct lack of polish. It feels like a rush job that could’ve been perfected if it was left in the garage for a few more months. Combine the lack of polish with a splattering of bugs, and it suddenly becomes impossible to ignore all of the little flaws. Minus the bugs, this would be a 4/5 game, but with them the game struggles to keep up with the competition.
Is it worth buying? If you are absolutely starved for a racer right now and you just can’t wait for Forza 4, then go ahead and pick it up. If you are still having fun with Forza 3 or GT5 though, then I’d only consider renting it. If you are a PC gamer without a 360 or a PS3, I’d consider picking it up too, but only if you own a good wheel and are willing to wait for a patch that may or may not come.
Ultimately, Shift 2 Unleashed is like a project car – it isn’t the best looking thing in the world and it can be frustrating as all hell, but when it works it can be a lot of fun.
Need For Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed was released on March 29th, 2011 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Review is based on the PC version.